Dogs in Public Places

We take our dogs outside all the time. They go for walks, they ride in cars, they even go to dog shows. But are they comfortable in all the environments they experience? The reality is that many dogs are not comfortable in many of the situations in which they find themselves.
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Of course we should care how our dogs perceive the world. They co-exist with humans. We brought them into our lives and have put ourselves in charge of their well being. In exchange we want them to behave in certain ways. Most people expect dogs to be well behaved, house trained and affectionate. Beyond this, many of us expect our dogs to attend dog events of one kind or another and to behave appropriately at these events. This could be a Conformation show, Agility Trial or even just an organized dog walk to support animal rescue.

I put myself in the public spotlight many times throughout the year, along with my dogs. I attend organized dog walks, put on dog sports demonstrations, go to various dog shows and help out with 4-H at the Fair. This gives me many opportunities to crowd watch. I observe how people and their dogs behave in many environments.

Just today I was at the County Fair with 4-H, helping and watching the dogs and people. Some dogs were excited, eager and happy to be there. But far more were having difficulty dealing with the whole experience. They are expected to sit around all day waiting for various events to occur while people walk by looking at them. Then they are brought into a show ring and asked to perform the various tasks they have been trained for: Obedience, Showmanship, Agility, Rally, and more.

What I observe is many dogs that are uncomfortable in these conditions. They enter the show ring and, despite all the training that has taken place through the year, they are sometimes unable to do the simplest behaviors when in the show ring. What I hear quite often is “he’s just being stubborn today” or “she’s hot” or “I don’t know what happened, at training he’s perfect”. I hear this same thing at dog shows, agility trials and other events.

I believe the dogs are not feeling comfortable in the environment in which they find themselves. A training class or 4-H meeting is much different than a place with hundreds of people milling about. Instead of focusing on what the dogs are not doing, we could look at what they ARE doing.

Many of the dogs are showing avoidance behaviors. They are reverting to things that relieve stress. A dog that gets the “zoomies” may be just as stressed as one that slowly wanders around sniffing and ignoring the person that’s trying to get them to do something. Peeing on object, sniffing the ground, running around, trying to get out of a ring, ignoring cues, staring around. These are all things that dogs may be doing that show they are not comfortable where they are.

Here is a list of some things that may be happening at public events that may actually cause your dog some concern:

  • Petting – We expect our dogs to accept the petting of strangers. I’m not sure I would like it if random people came up to me and started rubbing me on my head and back.
  • Staring – Humans sit around a show ring and watch what the dogs are doing. However, dogs don’t typically sit around staring at each other.
  • Nerves – I have heard it said that nervousness travels down the leash. If you are nervous, your dog may detect that and become worried that something bad is going to happen.
  • Environment – Dogs get used to the places they typically go. All of these events take place in public areas where the dogs don’t normally visit.
  • Equipment – If you have been training your dog in an event that uses equipment, the dogs may not understand why the equipment is different and this can cause some concern.
  • Standing/Sitting around – There may be a judge and other people just hanging around where the dog is trying to perform. Some dogs are worried about this.
  • Dogs – Sometimes we expect our dogs to perform with a large group of unknown dogs nearby. Whether it’s an Obedience Trial with a long down or a dog park, some dogs are concerned when there are unknown other dogs nearby.

So what can we do about it?

There’s quite a lot. I think the most important is to recognize that your dog is uncomfortable in an environment. Instead of thinking that the dog is being stubborn, watch it’s behavior and see if maybe it’s concerned about what is going on or where it is. If that is what is happening then you can certainly work on it. You can slowly expose your dog to a wide variety of situations and groups of people. However, you should never do more than your dog can actually handle. You can take a Control Unleashed class or it’s equivalent to help your dog feel comfortable in a wide variety of situations. I fact, Control Unleashed by Leslie McDevitt is a great book on this exact subject.

I would recommend that you do not force your dog to perform in front of people or dogs unless they feel comfortable in that environment unless you are using that environment to help them build up their comfort level. Quite often, forcing a dog to perform just masks the issues and doesn’t actually resolve them. There isn’t a quick fix though. Getting dogs comfortable in a variety of environments can take quite some times and should be approached carefully.

In all cases, you need to be aware of how your dog is behaving and look for the signs that they are concerned about their environment. Like most things in life, the first step towards a solution is in understanding that there is a problem.

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